Learning To Live With Reactivity: The Carter Story.
For most of you out there following my page, you are all too familiar with the smiley, squishy, lovable face of Carter Bo Barber. But what you haven't seen, is the explosively reactive, barky, growly, lunge first - ask questions later side of this beautiful boy, with the catchy name, and the smile that just won't quit.
We adopted Carter from the Winnipeg Humane Society in August of 2017. He was the first dog I ever worked with, and all while training on how to perform handling desensitization. It took me 0.005 seconds to fall in love with his green eyes, and that adorable pink nose... so low, and behold - he came home with us shortly after that.
Adopting an older dog from a shelter always comes with a lot of unknowns. For the most part, they were either surrendered (whether it be due to reactivity, aggression, over-excitablility, etc), or they were often strays. This results in a lot of uncertainty as to what their actual background was, which in turn can give you some surprises when you make the decision to bring a shelter dog home. Now, don't get me wrong... I absolutely LOVE every dog I have worked with, adopted, and spent time with at the Humane Society. Each one has their own personality, quirks, and are all around little balls of furry love that just need to find their people - in short, I am 110% for rescuing dogs!! That being said, you can get some surprises when you bring one home. I like to call them "quirks".
Anyways, we decided to adopt Carter knowing that he was surrendered for being aggressive when having his nails cut and his ears cleaned... what we didn't know was that he was also people (mostly women), dog, bike, stroller, car - really anything that moved - and noise reactive. Fun right?
Up to this point I have had a chocolate lab - who has been an old soul from the time he was 2 years old, a white german shepherd - who was my childhood dog and a complete beauty, and a lab cross - who was literally the most gentle dog in the world... so the only aggressive displays of behaviour that I have seen in dogs had been on tv, and during the 1 month that I had been woking at WHS prior to adopting Carter.
So we brought Carter home, and everything was going great - cue "walking on sunshine". We were all bright-eyed, and bushy tailed until about 3 days in. As it turns out, he was not fond of our roommate, and seemed to think that when she came up from downstairs, life as we knew it was undoubtedly going to end...
Long story short, his behaviours toward almost everything escalated in a short amount of time. He was scared of absolutely everything. We were on a walk when a moth flew out from the grass - Carter spider-manned across the grass and was literally frozen in fear. We were sitting in the living room enjoying a glass of wine, and he started barking at the stem on my wine glass... weird stuff like that. Any time a woman would come to our house (and a few choice men) he would bark, snarl and growl at them. With the appearance of these new insecurities and fears came an incredible amount of stress, embarassment, and heartbreak.
Everyone wishes their dogs loved every person/dog they meet, or that they could bring them on adventures - or even to family dinners. Instead, we had a dog who lunged at my sister-in-law, scared our house guests, growled at our roommate, and wasn't allowed to come with us to my parent's house because he would try to go after my brother's dog every time he saw him... oy vey.
Living with a reactive dog is a very stressfull, daunting, tedious task - that can sometimes feel hopeless. At times throughout this last year I have felt completely hopeless. Why did my amazing, loveable, goofy dog - who has shown me nothing but affection, and companionship not show that side to other people? Why do I have to keep defending him to people who think it was a bad idea for me to adopt him? Why do I have to deal with the embarassment of him lunging at every dog in the neighbourhood during our walks, or see people cross to the other side of the street when they see us? Am I going to have to give him up? Am I going to have to move because he's aggressive toward my roommate?
These are all questions that had gone through my mind - along with many other moments of stress, grief, and all-around frustration. If you have, or have ever had a fearful, aggressive, or reactive dog - I'm sure that you are familiar with these feelings.
Trust me - it gets better.
Through trial and error, counterconditioning, desenstization, and lots and lots of management we started to build a better relationship with Carter, and he started to trust us more and more.
With lots of research, talking to traininers, and reading about every single book I could on dog behaviour - we realized what his triggers were, what his body language was telling us, and what we could do to start showing him that we understood what he was trying to tell us, and that it was all going to be okay. I started training with him every day on basic obedience commands, and then worked my way up to handling desensitization and muzzle training. With our bond growing he started to trust me more, and when there was something that he was scared of, he started to look at me for guidance - and actually listened to me when I said it was okay to check it out.
Carter has now been with us for almost a year.. and as of about a month ago - lives with another dog in the house (and actually likes it). He is excited to see all of our friends when they come over, and loooooooves our roommate (she gives the best butt scratches). He is still dog-reactive, uncomfortable around large groups of people, terrified of getting his nails trimmed/ears cleaned, and will bark at the occasional bike that zips by us during walks... but I would say that is some serious progress.
He makes me laugh every day, fills my heart with happiness, greets me with such joy every time I come in the door, and has changed my life in a way that I did not know was possible.
He showed me how to work through the bad times for something that I loved, he taught me to never give up, he lifted my spirits in times that felt dark, and he showed me how rewarding it is to show a fearful dog how to trust - which is what finally showed me what my passion in life was - I wanted to help others - those who are struggling with a reactive dog - to see the same thing that I saw.
We still have a ways to go, but we have made it a long way, and there will be many more achievements to come.
For all you reactive dog owners out there - keep it up! You're doing great! IT WILL GET BETTER! Don't dwell on the negative. Celebrate the small victories. Remember that every small victory brings you closer and closer to your dog being more confident, relaxed, and overall happy.
YOU'RE DOING GREAT!